Track lengths on albums and EPs can vary significantly, but the most common seem to be in the 4-5-minute range. Even when some song lengths creep up into the 10-minute range, most releases still include enough individual tracks that interested listeners can do some “sampling”, i.e., listening to a song or two in order to decide whether to take the plunge into the entire record.
Scáth Na Déithe‘s new album Virulent Providence does not allow this. It includes only two tracks, each of them in the vicinity of 20 minutes long, and those two are also conceptually connected, so even listening to just one of them diminishes the impact of the album as a whole.
Obviously, this is a risky approach, especially in an age filled to overflowing with distractions, where minds constantly flit from thing to thing and patience is in short supply. The demands for immediate gratification and tendencies toward quick impulsive decisions can make the prospect of investing 20 minutes in a single composition, or two of them that demand that much time, a daunting one. The desire for sampling won’t go away either, and so there’s also the risk that people might just spend a few minutes listening to the start of one of these two long tracks, and make a snap decision based on that alone.
But we’re here to tell you that Virulent Providence is well worth all the attention it demands, because the album is a remarkable one. It’s also difficult to fathom how it could have been broken up into shorter pieces without severely sacrificing what makes it so remarkable. It’s simply one of those albums that, to be fully appreciated, requires immersion in the whole saga. Fortunately, it turns out that becoming immersed in it isn’t difficult at all, and as long as there isn’t some external event that forces you to stop, you probably won’t have any sense of a clock ticking and time passing.
We mentioned that the two long songs are conceptually linked, and this Irish band briefly describes the concept in these words:
“Countless manifestations of collective suffering have been passed down in folk memory since the Great Hunger of the 1840s. Virulent Providence explores these horrific and harrowing representations of torment, the spectral figures now eternal keepers of the true trauma and anguish of a people long gone. Their horror is preserved forever in folklore.”
The lyrics of the two songs, some of which are in the old Irish tongue (including quotations from the song “Amhrán na bPrátaí Dubha” composed during the Great Famine by Máire Ní Dhroma), reflect the concept in shattering terms, well-formed to starkly capture almost unimaginable experiences of suffering, terror, and death — the death of spirit, mind, and body.
Some horrors inflicted by humans against humans are so vast and terrible that they seem rooted in the soil, and long outlast the lives taken, an infection in the memories of generations so awful that the passage of centuries dims it only slowly and never completely extinguishes it. The Great Famine is one of those horrors, and so although the task of rendering it in music may have been a necessity for Scáth Na Déithe, doubtless it was also a formidable challenge. How was the challenge met?
In conventional terms, the music draws upon the plundering heaviness of death metal and the scalding hostility of black metal, with folk accents, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg, or perhaps more accurately the foundation for elaborate, towering musical monuments of horror and heartache.
The sounds are often rough and raw, dense and abrasive, like howling sandstorms slashing over the vivid pulse of bass and drums. Piercing guitars flicker and writhe through the maelstroms, and screams and roars enhance the sensations of tumult and pain. But the chords also transmit long moans of agony, and the booming drums march like casket-bearers staggering under the weight. Vicious cruelty seethes within the riffing, and laments unfurl like black banners.
But this too is still just the tip of the iceberg. Apart from near-constant changes in drum patterns and the morphing of the layered riffs, the music’s variety also manifests in mysterious shimmering swaths of sound spreading in wondrous tones above distant beats and eerie low-level undulations, and wraiths seem to shriek from that spirit-world. The tremolo’d melodies also vibrate in sounds of devastating heartbreak, or like a whirlpool drawing the listener into a doomed yet still mesmerizing descent.
At times, the reverberating peal of the guitars sounds like wails of misery, and the bass clangs like the grim bells of approaching apocalypse. Moreover, in the second track ancient drum rhythms and acoustic picking have their place along with wistful pinging keyboard tones from a modern age. In that track, which is overall more spellbinding than the first, the music also soars, sweeps, and glitters like a winter sunrise, though sorrow is its constant companion.
The music thus ebbs and flows and different aural ingredients come into play, as one would hope and expect for tracks of such monumental length, and motifs appear and then later reappear (and get hooked in the head), but calamity is never far away in these stricken suites, and so the music, even in the second track, regularly becomes overpowering in its ruinous force and traumatic intensity, or deeply steeped in desperation and hopelessness.
And so, to return to where we begin, Virulent Providence demands a lot of attention from a listener, but amply rewards it. It’s not a test of endurance, but instead a transportive epic that won’t be soon forgotten. All of it is the work of one person (Cathal Hughes), which makes the accomplishments all the more remarkable.
We leave you now to our premiere of the entire album. Soundcloud of course isn’t the ideal medium for listening to anything, but it’s what we have. Just imagine how much more unnerving and enthralling this will be in its proper form when released.
Virulent Providence will be released by Vendetta Records on February 23rd. For more info about the release and how to acquire the album, keep an eye on the locations linked below.